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Selling beets at the market? Well, you may need a license

The Ashland City Council set off a storm of protest after raising the possibility that people selling produce, art, crafts and other items from booths could be forced to pay $75 to get a business license.

The change would affect vendors at the for-profit Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market and the Ashland Artisan Emporium, and also could affect artists and artisans at places such as the nonprofit Ashland Art Center and Lithia Artisans Market.

Vendors selling items for less than four days, such as at weekend holiday bazaars, would not be affected.

Ashland's current business license law exempts booth owners from having to buy a business license. The seasonal growers market and the new emporium on Ashland Street have to have a business license, but their vendors do not.

As nonprofits, the art center downtown and the seasonal artisans market near Lithia Park don't have to buy business licenses. But whether their vendors would have to remains an open question, according to city staff.

The art center has a traditional gallery space, but also rents out small booth-like studios where artists can work and sell their pieces.

At a Tuesday meeting, several City Council members said they wanted to do away with the business license exemption for booth operators. That set off a flurry of phone calls and e-mails from vendors upset about the cost of the potential change.

The City Council will hold a public hearing, likely on Feb. 1, before adopting any changes. The application for a business license for a one-person operation would be $75, with a $50 annual renewal fee. There would be additional $5 to $10 fees for each employee.

Growers market manager Mary Ellen De Luca said she thinks the business license fees would be a burden on individual vendors, although most would probably buy the licenses rather than be put out of business.

"Some of the smaller vendors will feel it's just more red tape to have to pass through. I'm a little discouraged with it, personally," she said. "We're a farmers' market."

The market has nearly 150 vendors, according to the organization's website.

In draft changes to the city's business license law, Assistant City Attorney Megan Thornton had proposed that the exemption for booths be continued.

She also proposed a new exemption for family farmers. Several city council members were against those two exemptions.

Willow-Witt Ranch co-owner Suzanne Willow, who sells meat and dairy products through the growers market, said she thinks the current system is fair. She pays fees to be in the market, and those fees help pay for the market's single business license covering all vendors.

Willow said she would like the booth exemption to continue, and also favors the exemption for farmers. "It's a fairly inexpensive way that the city government could support local, sustainable food by giving farmers an exemption," she said.

Jewelry maker Annette Trujillo, who sells through the growers market in Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass, said a business license fee could be burdensome, especially if other cities followed Ashland's lead. "There are a great deal of small businesses in this area, especially in Ashland, with all the artists," she said. "I think $75 is a bit steep. It might be OK for businesses with a storefront, but we don't have a storefront. I hope they could adjust it for us."

At the Ashland Artisan Emporium, which is less than three months old, proprietor Michelle Christian said she followed the city law and got a business license, but never expected that people who lease booths in the building would have to buy individual licenses.

"These people are not making tons of money," she said. "They are members of the community who are ecstatic to find an affordable place to show their things. They can't afford a $75 fee.

"They would not do it, and they would move out to the point that I would have to close my doors. The city would force us all out of business. We've barely gotten started. It would ruin the dreams of a lot of people, including my own."

Christian said when she proposed a $2 monthly charge per vendor for people to receive sales alerts by e-mail, many of the vendors opted out of the service rather than pay the small fee.

She said 225 people sell items at the emporium. The alternative would be to rent out the space to a chain big-box retailer such as Best Buy, she said.

In an e-mail to the City Council and the mayor, emporium vendor Susanne Robertson said a business license requirement would be a death stroke for many vendors, which would then cause the emporium to fail. "Like myself, there are many artisans who have yet to break even in this new venture, much less turn a profit, but we're hanging in and taking our lumps as best we can, hoping word-of-mouth will spread fast enough to bring us the buyers we need," she wrote.

Robertson said many vendors are just trying to make some extra money, but some hope to use the emporium as a starting block to eventually launch their own startups.

Emporium vendor Nancy Ames said in an e-mail to elected officials that the government should be looking for ways to help the town's growers, artists, artisans and craftspeople develop income streams, rather than imposing costly fees on people running shoestring operations.

In a lengthy e-mail to concerned vendors, Councilman Greg Lemhouse said he is also worried about placing financial burdens on very small business operations, which he termed "micro-businesses."

Lemhouse suggested that, regardless of the type of business, perhaps people earning less than $10,000 per year could be exempt from the business license requirement.

"These micro-businesses could eventually grow into larger operations. I would like to give them the chance," Lemhouse said, noting his idea needs to be discussed by the whole council.

He said he doesn't believe the council wants to enact laws that would inhibit small business growth or that would discourage the contributions artisans make to the town.

Ashland Finance and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg said that perhaps one option could be that the main organization, such as the growers market, be required to pay a $5 to $10 fee per vendor in addition to buying a business license.

That would make the market similar to other businesses, such as Standing Stone Brewing Co., which buy licenses and then pay an additional fee for each employee, he said.

Creating an income threshold for business licenses could be tricky when it comes to evaluation and enforcement, Tuneberg said.

Mayor John Stromberg said elected officials need to be careful about imposing business license requirements that could become a barrier to startup businesses and small, existing operations.

"What I'm concerned about is the size of the business and whether it's large enough and strong enough to handle the cost of a business license," he said. "I have a serious concern about imposing a business license requirement on small businesses that may not even be profitable. That's a concern that we have not thoroughly worked out."

Councilman Russ Silbiger said he believes booth vendors should always have been required to have business licenses, regardless of how much money they make or whether they're profitable. He said if they aren't profitable, they probably won't be operating for long, anyway. "It's not a matter of if you make money or if you don't make money. When I had a restaurant, sometimes I lost money. I still paid my fees and taxes," Silbiger said.

As for a business license exemption for family farms, Silbiger said he opposes that idea. He said business license requirements for growers protect consumers, since customers and officials can better track down the source of unsafe food.

Silbiger said while most council members did not support the growers' exemption, and wanted to add business license requirements for vendors, a final decision has not been made.

"It will all be on the table when it comes back again. We'll have the opportunity to hear from the public and modify — or not — the direction we were going," he said.

For more information on the current law and proposed draft changes, see www.dailytidings.com/business-licenses.

To check whether the issue and a public hearing will be scheduled for the Feb. 1 City Council meeting, go to www.ashland.or.us and click on "Council Business."

The council's agenda should be posted by Friday evening.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.